Our World

So Fifty Percent of the Population Simply do not Matter?

The other day when watching TV, I saw Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama making some statements on the outcome of the recent trial in Saudi Arabia. (I won’t go into details, but for those of you who have not followed this particular news, but here is an article: http://edition.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/meast/11/17/saudi.rape.victim/) I felt a tiny sense of relief that someone finally was at least reacting. Though not nearly enough of course. President Bush for example did not criticize what had happen, reluctant to upset a much needed ally. Instead he said, like so many others when cases like these come up, that this was an internal matter for Saudi Arabia. 

But why is it that even in my part of the world, where women got the right to vote almost 100 years ago, do careers, become politicians and men take part of the responsibility for children and the household, men’s rights in other countries are still valued higher than women’s? Would this have passed this easily if this punishment would have been for a Muslim man being driven by a Christian or Jewish man?

In 1999 or 2000, I remember an e-mail being circulated about women in Afghanistan. I had of course read occasional reports in the papers about the horrors that especially women endured under the Taliban regime. This e-mail encouraged me to forward it to Mary Robinson and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) as a protest. A few days later, I got an e-mail back from Ms. Robinson, explaining that due to al the e-mails they had received, their server was collapsing (remember that this was seven years ago…). But she also wrote that the OHCHR was very concerned about the situation in Afghanistan and had tried to raise the issue with its member states but that there was no real interest among the members to do something about it. So she asked us who had send the e-mail to instead mail the OHCHR a paper letter that they could bring to the member states to show the broad public opinion on the matter. About a year later, 9/11 shocked the world and NATO went in in respons to the attack on the U.S.

In 2003 it was time again. This time it was the regime in Iraq that was under criticism, accused to support al-Qaida. The European and some of the American public were not so convinced. And so the U.S. government started pointing at the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and claiming the human rights violations by the regime as a justification for going to war. To this I agree fully (though I am a pacifist and do not believe in war as a solution) – the Iraqi regime had to be brought to justice. With one of my best friends being Iraqi Kurd, the horrors that happened under Saddam Hussein have not escaped me. But when Condoleezza Rice was asked during the European and US protests prior to the attack if she did not care about the public opinion in our countries, she simply justified their plans by saying that the Iraqi population did not have the luxury to go out and demonstrate their opinion. And this while supporting Saudi Arabia where fifty percent of the population does not have the right to vote or even to drive a car. Where fifty percent of the population can be punished by the official justice system for being by themselves in the company of a non-related man. Where they do not have the right to a surgery without a man’s permission, or where they do not have the same rights as men to testify in courts.

Violations of women’s rights are not the same as violations of human rights. It should be but it is not. Not anywhere in the world. Violations of human rights are political and at least more or less acknowledged, protested against and many times sanctioned against. Systematic and state supported violations of women’s rights on the other hand are a cultural matter. It is a domestic issue, something that exists due to cultural and religious heritage and should not be respected as such. (I was actually at one point censured by FAO’s Office of the Director General for mentioning the lack of certain rights for women in a country progress report.) Even when economic rights are violated like for the white farmers in Zimbabwe or oil companies in Venezuela, Western governments are protesting more against this than the complete lack of legal protection for women in certain countries. Why is this?

Partly, I think it has to do with habits and how we are taught to see the world. Men are the norm. Men equal the population of a country. Not for us as individuals in our own environment or perhaps not in our countries, but when we look at environments that are foreign to us. It becomes very obvious when you watch TV. A while ago, I watched a news-clip on football in Brazil, the country where football is almost like a religion. The reporter told the story about how the kids start playing on the beach and on the street from before they start school, how children compete to get on teams, how the big football players are being national heroes and how everyone loves going to football matches. And yet, all I saw were basically boys and men. Well, I actually did see one little girl in the background at a beach they filmed, but other than that, I did not see a single girl or women play football in that report. How can this be “everyone”?? Brazil has been very slow in developing professional football for women and has not been very supportive of the national team despite their success. Also, currently, it does not have a national women’s league and the world’s best female player Marta, who is from Brazil, is playing in the Swedish league. So how can a reporter even make a clip like that? Well, I guess in this person’s world, women do not even play football and hence, it was never even thought of.

And more importantly, how many times do we not see protests from non-western countries on the news and the speaker talking about how many people that was out and what the public opinion is. But when you watch the film-clips, all you see are men. In some regions I see a few women, but what about the others? Even my strong, full-of-opinion Kurdish friend tells me that this is just because this is not the tradition in her part of the world. But does that mean that women there do not care? Are we saying like the Swiss used to say, that they will just vote like their husbands? Do women in these countries not have any opinions on their own? Are their lives and days so much like there husbands’ and their sons’ that they have exactly the same political opinions? Is it likely to believe that a 14 year old boy has more political views than his 40 year old mother? Do young women not have any hopes and dream for their own lives that would make them think any different from their fathers and their brothers? Is that really what we think?

That men are the norm is very obvious also when watching certain commercials (though I will not get in to a discussion about sexism in commercials, I’ll save that for some other time). I watch BBC World daily, and even though I find most of their news and documentaries etc of interest, it is obvious that I am not the target group. A 33 year old northern European, with a fairly high education in social sciences, a professional post for the world’s largest development institution, travelling regularly both through work and outside, and working closely with politician and policy makers. A bit of a cliché, I know, because I almost fully fit in to the little stereotype. Except for one thing: I am a women. Yes, I hear your protests. I know that there are more women than me in this sector. I don’t know the exact figures but the impression I have when people come in from DC is that we are many in my organization, though I am not sure that it is 50-50. But I am not complaining. Neither does the private sector depress me so much anymore, at least not in Sweden, the US or London (though there is still a lot more that could be done of course). And according to a recent BBC World business travel program, 40% of the world’s business travellers are women. So why then are the commercials for financial institutions, travelling, new papers, cars, and almost everything else they advertise for on this channel so male dominated?? Yes, women are present but they are the airhostess, the receptionist, and so on. In general, I do not believe that there are so many biological differences between men and women and that most gender differences that exist are rather due to culture and traditions and our narrow mindset. Hence, I can identify myself equally well with a man as with a woman. But being used to an environment where gender diversity is strived for, I still react when I see all-men commercials targeting the business people. Or men-only news clips, claimed to represent the entire population. Next time that you see it, I hope you will too. Just like our former foreign minister Anna Lindh’s nine year old son did, when she brought him to a foreign minister meeting in Brussels once. When they entered the room, he looked around and then he asked: “Mom, when are the women coming?” Well, I guess he has to wait at least another 10 years for them. But at least he saw that they were absent!

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